Scientific Basis for Changing Forest Structure to Modify Wildfire Behavior and Severity

For those opposed to sound forest managements here are some more research and empirical highlights to hopefully cause you to rethink your position:

1) Science Basis for Changing Forest Structure to Modify Wildfire Behavior and Severity “General Technical Report RMRS-GTR-120” 2004 – some quotes include:
– “More than 80 years of fire research have shown that physical setting, fuels, and weather combine to determine wildfire intensity (the rate at which it consumes fuel) and severity (the effect fire has on vegetation, soils, buildings, watersheds, and so forth).”
– “Models, field observations, and experiments indicate that for a given set of weather conditions, fire behavior is strongly influenced by fuel structure and composition.” I and others have repeatedly tried to explain this to certain members of this blog
– “Models and observations of landscape scale fire behavior and the impacts of fuel treatments clearly suggest that a landscape approach is more likely to have significant overall impacts on fire spread, intensity, perimeters, and suppression capability than an approach that treats individual stands in isolation.” –> This knowledge regarding the need for a landscape approach supports my frequent statements to the effect that a matrix of stands in various forest types and age classes representative of some loose form of forest regulation will be impacted less by fire than a more homogenous forest. I also maintain that the science supports matrix management as being crucial to minimizing the risk of catastrophic losses from beetles while having less long term impact on endangered species than out of balance age class distributions.
– Echoing what BobZ says frequently on this blog, the article says: “Before Euro-American settlement, cultural burning practices of Native Americans augmented or even dominated fire regimes in many vegetation types” –> Which is the basis for Bob’s constant reminder to those opposed to sound forest management that they are greatly mistaken when they want forests returned to some state untouched by mankind.
– Please note the graph on page 5 of Report RMRS-GTR-120 agrees with my interpretation of the graphs in this NCFP Post based on an article that Sharon found in the Denver Post in spite of those who claimed that there was no cause and effect scientific basis.
– You will also find a lot of support for what LarryH, BobZ Mac, BobS, John Thomas jr., Dave Skinner  and others have reported in many comments in various posts. Unfortunately these scientific basis are often given a perfunctory dismissal by those without knowledge of the science and with an agenda opposed to sound forest management.

2) This abstract of an article titled: “Carbon protection and fire risk reduction: toward a full accounting of forest carbon offsets” from the Ecological Society of America points out that “Examining four of the largest wildfires in the US in 2002, we found that, for forest land that experienced catastrophic stand-replacing fire, prior thinning would have reduced CO2 release from live tree biomass by as much as 98%“.

3) This abstract of an article titled: “Basic principles of forest fuel reduction treatments” clearly states:
– “drier forests are in need of active management to mitigate fire hazard”
– “We summarize a set of simple principles important to address in fuel reduction treatments: reduction of surface fuels, increasing the height to live crown, decreasing crown density, and retaining large trees of fire-resistant species. Thinning and prescribed fire can be useful tools to achieve these objectives.”
– “Applying treatments at an appropriate landscape scale will be critical to the success of fuel reduction treatments in reducing wildfire losses in Western forests.

15 thoughts on “Scientific Basis for Changing Forest Structure to Modify Wildfire Behavior and Severity”

  1. Here is a selection of recent Forest Service sponsored studies regarding fuels and wildfires from the Rocky Mountain Research Station. I’m sure there are plenty of other studies from other Forest Service units, across the nation.

    Wildfires during the summer of 2007 burned over 500,000 acres within central Idaho. These fires burned around and through over 8,000 acres of fuel treatments designed to offer protection from wildfire to over 70 summer homes and other buildings located near Warm Lake. This area east of Cascade, Idaho, exemplifies the difficulty of designing and implementing fuel treatments in the many remote wildland urban interface settings that occur throughout the western United States. The Cascade Complex of wildfires burned for weeks, resisted control, were driven by strong dry winds, burned tinder dry forests, and only burned two rustic structures. This outcome was largely due to the existence of the fuel treatments and how they interacted with suppression activities. In addition to modifying wildfire intensity, the burn severity to vegetation and soils within the areas where the fuels were treated was generally less compared to neighboring areas where the fuels were not treated. This paper examines how the Monumental and North Fork Fires behaved and interacted with fuel treatments, suppression activities, topographical conditions, and the short- and long-term weather conditions.

    This report synthesizes the literature and current state of knowledge pertaining to reintroducing fire in stands where it has been excluded for long periods and the impact of these introductory fires on overstory tree injury and mortality. Only forested ecosystems in the United States that are adapted to survive frequent fire are included. Treatment options that minimize large-diameter and old tree injury and mortality in areas with deep duff and methods to manage and reduce duff accumulations are discussed. Pertinent background information on tree physiology, properties of duff, and historical versus current disturbance regimes are also discussed.

    This guide describes the benefits, opportunities, and trade-offs concerning fuel treatments in the dry mixed conifer forests of northern California and the Klamath Mountains, Pacific Northwest Interior, northern and central Rocky Mountains, and Utah. Multiple interacting disturbances and diverse physical settings have created a forest mosaic with historically low- to mixed-severity fire regimes. Analysis of forest inventory data found nearly 80 percent of these forests rate hazardous by at least one measure and 20 to 30 percent rate hazardous by multiple measures. Modeled mechanical treatments designed to mimic what is typically implemented, such as thinning, are effective on less than 20 percent of the forest in single entry, but can be self-funding more often than not. We provide: (1) exhaustive summaries and links to supporting guides and literature on the mechanics of fuel treatments, including mechanical manipulation, prescribed fire, targeted grazing and chemical use; (2) a decision tree to help managers select the best mechanical method for any situation in these regions; (3) discussion on how to apply prescribed fire to achieve diverse and specific objectives; (4) key principles for developing an effective monitoring plan; (5) economic analysis of mechanical fuel treatments in each region; and (6) discussion on fuel treatment longevity. In the electronic version of the document, we have provided links to electronic copies of cited literature available in TreeSearch online document library (http://www.treesearch.

  2. Here in California, GTR-220 has been used to direct fuels management projects in the Sierra Nevada, while still addressing other important issues. Every timber sale has fuels management as one of its key needs and purposes.

    Current Sierra Nevada forest management is often focused on strategically reducing fuels without an explicit strategy for ecological restoration across the landscape matrix. Summarizing recent scientific literature, we suggest managers produce different stand structures and densities across the landscape using topographic variables (i.e., slope shape, aspect, and slope position) as a guide for varying treatments. Local cool or moist areas, where historically fire would have burned less frequently or at lower severity, would have higher density and canopy cover, providing habitat for sensitive species. In contrast upper, southern-aspect slopes would have low densities of large fire-resistant trees. For thinning, marking rules would be based on crown strata or age cohorts and species, rather than uniform diameter limits. Collectively, our management recommendations emphasize the ecological role of fire, changing climate conditions, sensitive wildlife habitat, and the importance of forest structure heterogeneity.

    GTR-237 seems to further clarify GTR-220, providing more reasons why we need to manage for multiple ecosystem benefits.

    There has been widespread interest in applying new forest practices based on concepts presented in U.S. Forest Service General Technical Report PSW-GTR-220, “An Ecosystem Management Strategy for Sierran Mixed-Conifer Forests.” This collection of papers (PSW-GTR-237) summarizes the state of the science in some topics relevant to this forest management approach, presents case studies of collaborative planning efforts and field implementation of these new practices, and clarifies some of the concepts presented in GTR 220. It also describes a method for assessing forest heterogeneity at the stand level using the Forest Vegetation Simulator and a new geographic information system tool for projectlevel planning that classifies a landscape into different topographic categories. While this collection of papers presents information and applications relevant to implementation, it does not offer standards and prescriptions. Forest management should be flexible to adapt to local forest conditions and stakeholder interests. This report does, however, strive to clarify concepts and present examples that may improve communication with stakeholders and help build common ground for collaborative forest management.

  3. Gil, Larry,
    Good stuff. Re-emphasizing the need for management, the fact the one size does not fit all, landscape scale treatment is required, and know-how is essential. Too bad that the Druids (a term of respect applied the keepers of ancient wisdom) aren’t interested in fire research.

  4. I read a bumper sticker once that asked “If you can’t change your mind, how do you know you have one?”

    I wonder if that is not applicable to everyone here (myself included), not just “those opposed to sound forest managements…”

    • I’ve seen a lot of minds changed in my career!

      Back in the 80’s it was, “End the clearcutting!” …… So, clearcutting was ended, here in the Sierra Nevada.

      In the early 90’s it was, “End the cutting of old growth!” ….. So, high-grading was ended.

      Now, some people say, “End the cutting!” …..Well, we’ve drawn the line here but, some people still actively seek just that!

      Changing your mind often means “moving the goalposts”. It’s hard to kick a field goal that way, much less score a touchdown.

      • Larry,

        Did you think that clearcutting was positive at one point in your career and now you think it is negative? Did *you* ever change your mind? (perhaps positive and negative are not the appropriate word choices.)

        It’s not that I disagree with what Gil has to say, it’s the way he says it. Us versus them. In my opinion, it doesn’t lend itself well to transferring or receiving information. That could very well be a short-coming on my own part–not being able to look past the framing.

        It strikes me as ironic to read about the virtues of collaboration on a combat-oriented blog where the point is evidently to tackle people and score touch downs.

        • I’ve always been somewhat against clearcutting and highgrading, because I never bought into all the Humboldt State logging efficiency stuff, when I was there. When I was a marking crew foreman in 1988, we had a project that started out with 4 clearcuts. We were told to look for “the Flower Pot Effect”, where lava reefs held pockets of rich soils between them. If a pocket was plantable, we were directed to make it into a clearcut. We ended up with 23 different clearcuts, with the biggest one being 12 acres. The rest of the project was the standard “Overstory Removal”. I was chastised for leaving a healthy and vigorous 32″ sugar pine, when our silviculturalist came out to check up on us. His reasoning was, “Generally, we don’t leave trees with that diameter out here”.

          I tend to use colorful writing to get points across, and am a bit of a smart@ss, from time to time. If someone is going to be ludicrous with their opinions, I like to push that kind of silliness to reach its logical end. Some might call that snarkiness but, I’ve been doing that my whole life. Snide remarks are my forte, and that makes people uncomfortable, sometimes. It is easier to point out the humor in such things, rather than lashing out, as some of my opponents do. Sometimes, people are unwilling to receive rebuttal information, under any conditions. We’ve seen some excellent examples of that, in this blog. Those types usually run away from here, unwilling to adapt or compromise.

          I’ve changed my mind a lot, in my many years, working in many National Forests, working in many different States. Montana was a tough one, as I tried to apply my California experience to fuels reduction projects but, I had to concede that it only was applicable in certain areas. Having been a field-going employee for my whole career, never even having my own desk, I’ve seen a lot of what works and what doesn’t. Being a photographer, I am a very perceptive person, seeing things that others have missed. Look at my Facebook page, and judge for yourself!

        • Spectator

          Please do not take any of what I am saying here personally especially since you say that you agree with much of what I say. What follows is an attempt to explain myself and solicit examples from my post that you object to and to solicit your suggestions as to how the same message could have been more effectively stated.

          1) Is it the way that I say it or the way that you take it based upon your own experiences? Are you reading things between the lines that aren’t there? Are you saying that those opposed to sound forest management on this blog haven’t been brutal in their use of innuendo and name calling in order to silence those who counter them with science? I have continuously asked these people to calmly discuss the issues on a point by point basis. But their answer is almost always to ignore the facts and they often followup by constructing an unrelated straw man in order to change the subject and continue to ridicule. When I perceive that I or someone else is being bullied, I have no problem bullying the bully. I learned a long time ago that bully’s count on fear. The only way to deal with a bully is to give them better than they can dish out.
          2) I have been attacked repeatedly for advocating scientifically based sound forest management since I joined this group. I tend to push back pretty hard when people without any significant education or experience in my area of expertise denigrate established and thoroughly validated science and instead choose to follow emotionally driven suppositions. I deliberately chose to use the words “those opposed to sound forest management” because I was chastised for using other classifications. In addition, I can’t call them environmentalists because I don’t believe that their uniformed positions are environmentally friendly in comparison to sound forest management. Based on experience, I consider foresters to be the true environmentalists if they have committed their lives to learning and staying current with the science of forestry and the other components of forest ecosystems.
          3) I do not back down from those who continue to perpetrate falsehoods even after the scientific truth about elementary principles such as the impact of stand density on stand health or vigor have been explained to them. To me it is like dealing with someone with a pack of matches deliberately trying to set the forest on fire. They must be stopped and, in the arena of ideas, truth is one of the two weapons to stop them. The second is to embarrass them with their own logical inconsistencies before their audience of followers. This second component is important because it is their favorite technique to try to silence the opposition which in turn reveals the importance of self image to them. Has playing nice with those opposed to well established/validated scientifically based sound forest management done any good in the over two decades during which emotions and suppositions have pushed sound forest management out of our national forests and turned our forests into unhealthy forests as we discuss here continually?

          Again, I choose frankness as opposed to sugar coated diplomacy which has been totally ineffective and driven many foresters from the SAF. What concrete effect have the diplomatic position statements of the SAF had on the management of our national forests? The opposition has attacked and ridiculed the forestry profession to the point of making the profession irrelevant in setting forest policy. As a result, the uninformed opposition controls the policy makers. To correct the problems in their long term counter productive policies, we must expose their falsehoods so strongly that the people who put those policy makers in place reject and ridicule the pied pipers that have misled them and cause the voting public to turn to the truth and make their ire known to the politicians.

          I’ve said all of this before but each time I say it I hope that maybe this time I’ll put the words together in a more meaningful way. Let me know how I did.

    • I think some people aren’t contesting some of that science. Some are asking, “What is wrong with having moderate, to high burn intensity?” I doubt such an argument will be settled soon. I like to talk about site-specific stuff, and forest realities. It seems important to admit that we cannot mitigate all that “happens”. There ARE some places we actually should designate as “Let’s-Burn” (VERY different from Let-Burn) areas. Just write them off if they are too steep, too uneconomical, too ordinary, too “snaggy” and too inaccessible. Those are very, very large acreages which we can’t possibly “save”. Those areas should be analyzed, to meet the same level of NEPA as timber projects do. These areas wouldn’t, necessarily, have to meet a strict prescription, and ignition source wouldn’t matter.

      What SHOULD matter is WHEN the area burns. Such fires shouldn’t tie up fire suppression forces during the peak months of fire season. Such areas should utilize all seasons to light fires, even when burning conditions aren’t good. For example, dead Wilderness Areas, like in the Rockies, should have chunks of them burned with heli-torches. Just light off entire drainages, letting it “chimney” up into the higher elevations. You could do every other watershed, leaving an untouched one in between. It would also reduce wildfire damages with lower burn intensities. Instead of those areas burning intensely in the middle of fire season, we could selectively burn dead forests, at lower intensities, outside of most of fire season. This type of plan could have cascading benefits that result in very significant “wins” for everyone.

      I’m not picking on you, Gil. It’s important to present the issues, even if the other side hasn’t stepped up, just yet.

      • LarryH

        I know you are not picking on me. I know that you speak from unbiased experience and education. I know that if you disagree with me, I have a very strong reason to reconsider my point and either clarify, modify or reject my point.

        I agree with everything that you have said above but would like to clarify one thing. When you say “I think some people aren’t contesting some of that science”, please consider that I am not speaking to such people. My strong science based counters are specifically addressed to “those opposed to sound forest management”. You know who they are on this blog. We and many others have repeatedly failed in our efforts to point out the science that belies their hands off philosophy which is counter productive to everyone’s “stated” long term goal of a vibrant and healthy global ecosystem. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that this failure is not on us. The science has been presented and their refutations have been addressed. They slip away for a few days and then a few posts latter come back with the same arguments. I may be very wrong but that only leads me to conclude that their “stated” goals are not their real goals.

  5. Spectator brings a reasonable argument to the discussions.
    Many here are forestry scientists/experts. However, they are unschooled in particular “soft” sciences (e.g., persuasion, communication, and decision making theory). It matters substantially “How you convey information” to get some one to “change his mind.” I suggest readings by Robert Cialdini or Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) to find a scientific basis for the efficacy of any particular “mind changing” method. Watch out though, you might (gulp) change your mind on how to change another’s mind.

    • Craig

      I appreciate your viewpoint but disagree. I have been schooled in these soft sciences. I have changed my mind – I now believe that their net impact is a negative. By the way, did you consider your words when you implied, without having any knowledge, that I didn’t know anything about the soft sciences and that my mind was not open to the facts. SOOooo…

      To me these soft sciences generally produce a net negative long term impact but in the short term they make their advocates feel very good about themselves. Compromise, that ignores the hard science is destructive. Those who buy into the short term feel good moments that result, will eventually find out that they have only made things worse by pretending that facts don’t matter. It leads to what we now have in our national forests.

      The nature of mankind is no different than it was many millennia ago. I don’t see the efforts to apply these soft sciences to forest ecosystems as any more successful than Mr Chamberlain’s effort to deal with Hitler (no, I am not comparing anyone to Hitler), Hillary’s reset button with Russia, or the ageless efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It is only meaningless talk which continues to cede policy making influence to the uninformed by giving credence to their false science.

      Gravity is real and anyone who thinks otherwise is welcome to jump out of a plane at 5,000 feet without a parachute but they are not free to compromise with some other idiots on the plane and make everyone on the plane jump out without a parachute.

      How am I doing? – Did I make my points clearly and persuasively without offending? Is it even possible not to offend those who disagree when you expose fallacies in their logic and in their understanding of the underlying science? Things will only get better in our National Forests when pride and wishful thinking is removed from the discussion.

  6. Gil,
    Thanks for replying.

    As I interpret your comments, you seemed to take them personally, and incorrectly. My premise is purely about your persuasion strategy. Are you an expert in persuasion and communication? I think you think you are. I would guess many who hold PhD’s would say you are not. Cialdini is world-renowned and so is Kahneman. (Who are you?) You essentially ignore persuasion science, even though you have good science to back your arguments.

    Persuasion is about the receiver, not you. Ask the receiver if he/she is persuaded. It appears you were unsuccessful as far as Spectator and me. I stopped reading the main body of your argument because of your negative and highly paternalistic tone. There is some empirical evidence for you.

    Until next time,

    • Craig

      It is my opinion that I have very few persuasive powers. All that I can do is present the facts. I only take things personally when attacked and I don’t think that you are aware of the attacks made on this blog by those opposed to sound forest management in spite of the facts. This fact based post was a reply to some repeated attacks on sound forest management which were devoid of facts. So your ESP has failed. Please do not try to read between the lines. There is nothing there. And any attempt to hold PhD’s up as paragons of virtue is wasted on me. If you want to know who I am, you can look up my profile on Linked-in or see a synopsis by clicking on “contributors” at the top of this page.

      Re: “Persuasion is about the receiver” – the key component in this point of yours is that the receiver must be interested in receiving. Those opposed to sound forest management have repeatedly shown over 20+ years that they are not interested in receiving. Far better people than me who are masters at the art of persuasion have failed miserably. So it is foolishness to think that more of the same is going to work. Those opposed to sound forest management only understand one thing – demolishing the opposition – and that is the only way to deal with them. They aren’t nice and see niceness and concessions as weaknesses to be exploited.

      If you wish to discuss this further please move from vague statements to statements that provide concrete examples of where the soft sciences have resulted in National Forest policies that have resulted in sound forest management being implemented across our national forests effectively for at least five years by reducing the occurrence of catastrophic damages to our national forests.


Leave a Comment